How I Learned to Drive is a love story, a tale of sexual molestation, a family portrait, and a coming of age tale. Paula Vogel has packed a lot of material into this relentless little play. My music director observed after our first run that the play is constantly in transition. How I Learned to Drive never stays in one place or even one year for very long. Instead the play invites the audience to take a road trip with narrator and protagonist Li’l Bit as she revisits memories of an affair with her uncle, Peck, and processes not just how he and the rest of the family shaped her but the choices she made and a time when she had no choice.
Lolita, the novel that How I Learned to Drive pays homage to, spends a lot of time on the road. Humbert uses road trips as a means of distracting and disorienting Lolita. Unlike Peck, Humbert does not teach the object of his affection how to drive. Lolita, however, does get behind the wheel. Humbert observes:
“I could make out Lo ludicrously at the wheel, and the engine was certainly running – though I remembered I had cut it but had not applied the emergency brake; and during the brief space of throb-time that it took me to reach the croaking machine which came to a standstill at last, it dawned upon me that during the last two years little Lo had had ample time to pick up the rudiments of driving” (228-29).
Humbert’s deepest fear that Lolita will leave him is about to come true. He fights tooth and nail to stop her. Peck shares Humbert’s fear. Peck, however, teaches Li’l Bit to drive. He encourages her to go to college. Paula Vogel points out “the thing that I find noble about” Peck is “he taught his niece how to reject him. I think he’s given her the tools and ego development to destroy him.” (1997 Interview)
It is not that Peck is a good pedophile and Humbert a bad one. Comparing Peck and Humbert is more akin to comparing the murderers, Othello and Iago. Othello and Peck succumb to demons that they cannot disentangle from their angels while Humbert and Iago worship their demons.
Both Lolita and How I Learned to Drive contain a devastating proposal scene near their conclusion. Humbert wants Lolita to leave her husband and come away with him forever. Peck wants to leave his wife and marry Li’l Bit. Lolita rejects Humbert. She stumbles to explain that she would sooner go back to an abusive ex-boyfriend. Humbert imagines her meaning:
“She groped for words. I supplied them mentally (“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life”).
Nabokov does not give the reader much hope for Lolita. She is a pregnant teenager dependent on her husband for fulfillment. Of course, we are seeing her through Humbert’s less than objective eyes. This is the end of the road for her. Lolita may have star billing as the novel’s titular character but the story belongs to Humbert.
Photo Credit: Ari Grey
How I Learned to Drive is more of a duet. Li’l Bit’s rejection of Peck is not the end of her story but rather a beginning. The play is a portrait of a woman processing her past and moving beyond it. To do that though, she must not only share the terrible thing Peck did to her, she has to share how he loved her and she loved him. At the end of the day it is that love story that makes How I Learned to Drive so beautiful and unnerving. Sadly most stories of abuse, assault, molestation, and rape do not involve strangers but people who we once loved, people who were supposed to love us. How I Learned to Drive is a fictional reflection of that reality.
Li’l Bit is not broken. As dark and tragic a play as How I Learned to Drive is, it is also full of hope. And humor. If you are in Portland, I hope you will come see it.
How I Learned to Drive opens Friday and shows for six performances: Fridays & Saturdays September 7th, 8th, 14th & 15th at 8 pm and Sundays September 9th & 16th at 2pm at the Backdoor Theater 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Tickets available online. Cast is David M. Brown, Elizabeth Garrett, and Melanie Moseley as The Greek Chorus, Natalie Stringer as Li’l Bit, and Tommy Harrington as Peck.
P.S. I am producing How I Learned to Drive in collaboration with Patrick J. Cox and Tobias Ryan. We are trying to raise about a third of the total production costs through donor contributions. Please visit our campaign page and consider donating.